09/07/2010 06:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Value-Added Misses the Mark - And the Point

If implemented, the Value-Added system will revolutionize the oft-maligned teacher assessment process by quantifying performance; establishing clear expectations; and streamlining the dissemination of data to teachers, administrators, and parents. At least, that's what we've been told. In the span of time it's taken the L.A. Times to publish what amounted to a three-part love letter extolling the attributes of the esoteric system, Value-Added has gone from experimental evaluation metric to union-busting public education panacea.

Perhaps fearing that their remaining readership would be frightened away by too much complexity, the L.A. Times mostly avoided divulging anything more than a brief overview of the mechanics behind the Value-Added system's calculus and application, choosing instead to focus on the ways in which the new metric will inevitably lead to a systematic dismantling of job security that has apparently lead to such egregiously horrid teaching in the first place.

As a result, Value-Added has officially gone hot-button. Gaping holes of knowledge be damned, the possible virtues and vices of the once obscure system's implementation are nonetheless being hotly debated throughout the media, likely at this very moment. It's no surprise. Few things get red-blooded Americans' juices flowing quite like heated rhetoric in which half-truths and false premises are bandied about with the conviction of biblical scripture.

And so the newest "It" metric has alternately been lauded and skewered by radio call-in show guests; decried by union bosses; embraced by parents and civic leaders; and exalted by politicians and newspaper columnists, most of whom couldn't tell you what SDAIE stood for if their kids' Campbell Hall tuition depended on it. Even local news telecasts, momentarily pausing from head-tilting accounts of kitties in trees, red carpet romances, and pre-K-ers lodged in wells, have latched on to the red meat offering of the week, starring the shiniest new toy of the public sector. Its clandestine implementation throughout L.A.'s elementary schools prompted the Times' HUAC-esque outing of the latest group of nefarious mustache-twirlers to grace the American pop culture landscape: teachers (momentarily supplanting investment bank CEOs, billionaire Ponzi schemers, Al Qaeda operatives, and Ben Roethlisberger).

Because Value-Added has been rubber-stamped by clueless school officials, grasping for ways to justify their own existence, and tacitly endorsed by a noteworthy media source that has seemingly become the de facto propaganda wing of the anti-teacher movement, public opinion has begun to eagerly follow suit.

Not that pitting the general population against public school teachers constitutes a major coup. In seeking out a quick and easy scapegoat for an institution beleaguered by a litany of maddeningly complex and seemingly intractable issues, teachers have, for years, been branded as the symbols of a crumbling public education system. We're often caricatured as coffee-swilling, tenure-groping slackers, selfishly standing in the way of student academic growth. It's a portrayal that's comforting, insofar as it absolves the rest of society from any degree of responsibility in raising healthy, ethical, intelligent, socially responsible human beings.

Except there's a fly in the ointment. It seems that the process of repairing public education may take a smidge longer than the time required to nuke a Hot Pocket, and advocates of quick-fix policy will be sad to discover that Value-Added has been described by academics, journalists, and educators as "unreliable," "inconclusive," "unpredictable," "controversial," "flawed," and "unstable." Even the Department of Education weighed in, essentially dismissing the system as too volatile for use in high-stakes evaluations.

Yet in the blind sprint to placate a restive public with any measurement that perceives to merge accountability with transparency, Value-Added has arbitrarily - and prematurely - been coronated by school districts and their fawning officials as the preeminent teacher evaluation method known to humankind, making it a central component in the process of grading - and oftentimes, burying - educators. In Washington D.C., where the system comprises 50 percent of a teacher's overall evaluation, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee summarily fired 26 teachers due to poor Value-Added scores; in Tennessee and Louisiana, the metric also accounts for half of a teacher's overall annual evaluation; and just last week, LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines' vow to make a strong push for it to account for 30 percent of all of the district's teachers' assessments was subsequently followed by the school board's backing. All of this while even the metric's staunchest advocates warn that it should not be used as a primary assessment tool.

From an educator's perspective, it's disquieting to know that the leaders of some of the biggest school districts in the land are completely undaunted by such a paucity of evidence. That, in their quest for having their names associated with school reform, they are either unaware or unmoved by what schools are rapidly morphing into: testing factories, where learning is redefined as a neat, tidy, easily quantifiable process in which a student's ability to master a standardized assessment is directly linked with his level of knowledge. This stubborn refusal by school officials to let inconveniences like acumen, facts, or long-term research hinder their single-minded political aspirations are deeply troubling on two fronts (and yet eerily reminiscent of our nation's "I'm the decider" zeitgeist).

First off, hundreds of innovative, dedicated educators - who most sane observers would consider exceptional at their profession - have been unceremoniously exposed to the public as substandard - courtesy of the L.A. Times, the Value-Added metric, and the concept of audacity. For Times reporters Jason Felch, Howard Blume, David Lauter, and Jason Song to then turn around and take a laughably disingenuous We're -just-reporting-the-facts stance on local call-in shows, days after performing what has amounted to a blind witch hunt, borders on the unconscionable. And providing outed teachers with a designated space to respond to their respective scores in their own personal chat rooms of shame - as the Times has so charitably done - does almost nothing to repair the damage incurred to one's professional reputation. Visibly confounded by such a brazen display of insensitivity, LAUSD school board member Steve Zimmer admonished, "There is a recklessness to putting out a database that is incomplete."

(That a once trusted news source is now trying desperately to revive their diminished relevance beyond lining the bottom of parakeet cages across the Southland by attempting to disgrace teachers is blatantly obvious, shamefully injurious - and more than a wee bit pathetic.)

Linda Brown, a 5th-grade teacher at Hazeltine Avenue Elementary, railed against the Times' disclosure of her Value-Added scores, which designate her "less effective than average overall." On her designated link, Brown inveighed against the results, writing:

I am extremely upset and disappointed with your findings. I would like to know if I was being compared to other 5th-grade teachers with the same demographics and the same school-wide focus. For example, writing was our focus one year and writing was not tested on the CST.

(That's right, concerned parents and taxpayers: A student's writing proficiency is one of the many higher level academic skills for which the most statistically consequential of all the high-stakes California tests does not assess. Also not tested: Research, speaking, listening, and organizational skills. Good luck in college, kids!)

There's also the fact that most of what we do know about Value-Added is what we don't know. Most conspicuously, it has yet to be widely implemented in secondary schools, many of which possess a bevy of variables that the overhyped and over-utilized metric cannot begin to accurately measure, such as frequent student transiency, erratic academic performance resulting from emotional or physical trauma, and the disturbingly common occurrence in which many kids utterly stop trying long before they physically drop out of school. And what about gang activity, deportation, PTSD, pregnancy, and abortion?

Contrary to what the expanding retinue of Value-Added disciples may claim, there are other, more meaningful, accurate, and equitable paths to accountability. But drafting and refining such a system is a fool's errand until we first examine and then reach some kind of consensus on the question of what a good teacher really is. Is a good teacher a classroom showman? A tireless advocate? A subversive visionary? A nurturing mentor? A stern taskmaster? A didactic academic? A test-prep facilitator?

Critics will claim that reaching a consensus on such criteria will be impossible, due to the task's inherent subjectivity. But why reinvent the wheel? Why not simply invoke the attributes and teaching styles displayed by our best teachers - you know, the ones from whom we learned the most, the ones who pushed us to keep our eyes open, our heads up, and our minds laboring with intensity and complexity. They were models of persistence who inspired through force of will, when necessary. Their classes - always dynamic, engaging, and challenging - ended seemingly moments after they began. (Theirs were some of the few classes in which we didn't rejoice upon discovery of a substitute nervously positioned at the front of class, poised to press "play" on a wheezing VCR.) They were bookish iconoclasts; Random House rebels. They understood that real learning could and should be a messy, arduous, creative, introspective process. I can still recall Mr. Evans, my Global Studies teacher from sophomore year, glibly referring to students who excelled on standardized tests and yet faltered when confronted with more analytical coursework as "Bubble-Bots."

Michelle Rhee would've had him on the unemployment line in less time than it takes to say "teacher accountability."